Marijuana zoning changes considered by council committee

This afternoon the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee met to consider several items, including changes to zoning restrictions on marijuana commercial activities. 


Meeting details

The first item was considering the appointment of Nathan Torgelson as Director of the newly-created Department of Construction and Inspections. Torgelson is currently Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Development. The committee had asked him to complete a questionnaire ahead of time, and his answers can be found here — including an outline of his goals for the organization.  The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full Council approve it next Monday.

The second item of business was the approval of an Interlocal Cooperation Agreement with several neighboring counties and cities in order to set up funding (called the REDI fund) and execution to build affordable housing near transit hubs in the greater Puget Sound area. (full details on the legislation here) Committee chair O’Brien asked “Are you really telling me that all of these organizations are on the same page on affordable housing?”  To which the city staff responded “It has taken many years to get here, but yes.”  The REDI fund is pooled money to create a loan fund to support acquisition of land to build affordable housing. The initial fund has $5 million in public funding, including a $1 million initial contribution from the City of Seattle (with more committed for future years). Projects will be distributed around the region, with Seattle’s share being 38% of the total funds. Seattle is one of the first partners to bring it up for approval; it will work its way through the rest of the city and county councils over the next few months and then begin to ramp up.  The committee voted unanimously to send this to the full Council for approval.

The third item of business was a change in the zoning ordinance to expand the allowed square footage for existing community medical services in “Neighborhood Commercial 1” zones (in urban centers and villages). Currently community medical services, which serve low-income communities, can be a maximum of 10,000 square feet, but apparently that is not enough to offer the breadth of services that many people require. The legislation expands that limit to 20,000 square feet.  This is not intended to have a large effect, since there are only a small number of community medical services providers. One of those providers, Country Doctor Clinic in Capitol Hill, testified in the public comment session that this would allow them to expand to provide dental services to their low-income patients. The committee voted unanimously to send it on to the full Council for approval.

The last item of business was an update to the zoning laws with regard to marijuana-related activity – a first hearing and public comment session on it, potentially to be voted upon at the next committee meeting on December 15th and possibly sneaking in for full Council approval before the end of the year. This reconciles the previous regulations on medical-related marijuana activity, recreational marijuana activity, and individual and cooperative marijuana activity intended for private consumption. The updated ordinance sets a new threshold for what constitutes “major marijuana activity” without regard to whether it is intended for medical or recreational use, and zoning restrictions differ above and below the threshold.  It also changes the rules about required distances from schools, parks, and other public facilities, and separation of major marijuana activity sites from each other.

Of note: marijuana delivery services are currently illegal, though a handful operate illicitly. The city is trying to crack down on them, and is also talking to state staff about a state-wide framework for establishing legal, well-regulated delivery services.

There is lots of great details about the proposed legislation in this presentation by the city staff that the committee heard today.

Any existing locations would be “grandfathered” related to the changes proposed; they would only apply to new locations.

In the public comment session, representatives of the marijuana industry and  local commercial real estate operators argued for reducing the buffers even further — particularly since the state’s Liquor Control Board will soon be enacting caps on the number of retail outlets. Some speakers took issue with the way that the buffers treat marijuana retailers the same as strip clubs. They argued that the goal should be to “normalize” the way marijuana businesses are treated, bringing them under a reasonable legal framework that would avoid a real estate bubble and disincent the black market marijuana industry out of existence.  Several speakers suggested that with the upcoming Liquor Board rule changes and some studies on the state marijuana industry soon to be released, the city should wait until more and better information is available rather than rush into making zoning changes now — and if there is a belief that changes be made now, a cap on retail businesses is a reasonable temporary solution.  One speaker discussed the Belltown neighborhood in particular: a “vertical” neighborhood that also sees a lot of traffic from cruise ship passengers. She argued passionately that Belltown needs more “502 retail stores”  (Initiative 502 was the statewide initiative that legalized marijuana) or it will end up being the center of the black market in the city. She also pointed out that dog parks are currently considered public parks for the purposes of distance regulations, which in dense urban neighborhoods such as Belltown makes it impossible to site a marijuana retail location.

Council president Burgess pointed out that the city has a clear responsibility to police the industry, including trying to eliminate the illegal activities — including delivery services which are all currently illegal.

No vote was taken today (nor was one expected) but lots of issues were raised that will need to be considered over the next two weeks.